Trained between Russia and NATO and hardened in Donbas: the generals who stopped the invasion of Ukraine | International
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Wars are a prolific scene in heroes, you just have to take a walk through any town in Ukraine to see it. Each municipality has its monuments dedicated to Soviet soldiers who fought against Germany in World War II. But Ukraine, a state that has only been in existence for 31 years, today needs its own myths, and it has found them in the generals who lead the country’s defense against Russia.
Hanna Maliar, Deputy Defense Minister, surprised in September by pointing to four men who, in her opinion, are called to be “Ukrainian myths themselves.” Maliar stressed that heroism in the “great war of liberation” is found in all ranks, but the deputy minister confirmed that there are four soldiers who are on everyone’s lips: the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, Valeri Zaluzhni; the commander of the Army, Oleksandr Sirski; the chief of the General Staff, Serhi Shaptala; and the commander of the High Command in the South, Andri Kovalchuk. The four are considered the main brains of the strategy so that the Moscow troops did not take the capital, kyiv, and of their withdrawal on the Kharkiv, Donetsk, Lugansk and Kherson fronts.
“These people have studied NATO precepts and applied them, but the main factor that makes them military leaders is eight years of experience in Donbas,” says Oleksi Melnik, co-director of the Razumkov Center for International Policy and Security Analysis. . Melnik was an adviser to the Ministry of Defense in a few years in which, according to his description, “the officers were Soviets in Ukrainian uniform.” This has completely changed with a generation formed between the West, the Soviet legacy and the war in Donbas, says Melnik. “This generation has eight years of learning on the front lines, on a large scale, and that is something that no other army in the world can say,” adds Mark Savchuk, a renowned political analyst and member of the National Anti-Corruption Office of Ukraine: “ They are officers who had to raise an armed force from scratch; from improving combat uniforms to getting food rations.”
Ukraine is waging its war of independence, affirmed the Ukrainian president, Volodímir Zelenski, in a recent interview with EL PAÍS. Confronting an invader who denies its existence as a country has united citizens en masse and for the first time in four decades. Differences within society over relations that should be maintained with Russia have largely been left behind since February 24, when Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered the offensive. But while Zelensky continues to provoke suspicion among the most nationalist Ukrainian electorate, the army is the glue, mirror of a society proud to be resisting the onslaught of a superpower.
In July 2021, when Zelensky appointed Zaluzhni commander-in-chief, the 49-year-old general already assumed that the Russian invasion would soon take place. The president was skeptical about this threat until the very day that Putin ordered the offensive, despite the warnings that he received from the intelligence services of the United States. As reported by the Ukrainian media and confirmed by experts consulted by this newspaper, the exchange of information since then between the Ukrainian high command and the Pentagon has been direct and daily.
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Two months before the fateful February 24, Zaluzhny prepared his army for when the time came: secretly, without even providing many details to the Ministry of Defense, the commander-in-chief distributed entire regiments in the north of the country, especially around of kyiv, in addition to artillery and anti-aircraft defenses. Troop movements were carried out without major operations to make the enemy believe that the soldiers were still in their bases. That decision was decisive in saving Ukraine.
With the appointment of Zaluzhny and Lieutenant General Shaptala at the head of the military leadership, Zelenski gave the final shelving to an army anchored in Soviet military theory. The Ukrainian Armed Forces had suffered from reduced assets and budget since independence, a jibarization that came to a screeching halt in 2014, when Russia illegally annexed Crimea and supported separatist uprisings in eastern Donbas. From that moment on, a rearmament and modernization process based on NATO military models began. The generation led by Zaluzhni and Shaptala, who are in their late 50s, have completed the transformation.
learn from the enemy
That these men receive enormous respect from the population is shown by some reflections by Zaluzhni in an interview published in September in the magazine Time. Voiced by any politician, his words would have caused an earthquake, but it did not happen with Zaluzhny. The commander-in-chief expressed his admiration for Valeri Gerasimov, the chief of the Russian General Staff, recognized as a military theorist, and whom Zaluzhni assures that he owns all of his academic work. “I was brought up in Russian military doctrine, and I still believe that all military science is in Russia,” he said. “I learned from Gerasimov, I have read everything he has written; he is the smartest man there is, ”he added. Savchuk interprets Zaluzhni’s explanation with the double meaning that the Ukrainian military understands the enemy: “Unlike the Russian generals, they have shown that they are military and that they command the Armed Forces, not like in Russia.”
Zaluzhni was trained in the Red Army, like Sirski, who graduated from the Moscow High Command Academy. This knowledge of the enemy has been key; something that the Russian General Staff has proven not to have. Zaluzhni gave an example in the interview with Time: Despite the numerical inferiority, he prepared a trap for the Russians in kyiv that was effective because his rival did not know what he was up against. Months before the invasion, the commander-in-chief foresaw the three main routes by which Russian troops would arrive from the north, coming from Russian and Belarusian territory. Instead of engaging each other in the early stages of the offensive, he allowed them to advance to kyiv’s first line of defense and from there he relentlessly pummeled their rear and supply chains with quick small-unit attacks. The Russians found out too late that the population was not in favor of him either.
Sirski is, after Zaluzhny, the most admired soldier on the Ukrainian side. He led the defense of kyiv and, together with Kovalchuk, planned the lightning offensive in the Kharkov province that pushed Russian troops back beyond the borders of the Lugansk province. The head of the Army proved that his ranks not only know how to defend, but also attack. Sirski displayed an exhibition of military strategy according to the precepts of NATO, but also of Gerasimov himself. Unlike the Russian army, the Ukrainian one follows a less hierarchical model in which the commanders at the front have the autonomy to act without waiting for orders from their superiors. Sirsky not only applied this to the Kharkiv offensive: he also avoided direct confrontation and relentlessly prodded the Russian defense lines with small, fast units, usually no more than 12 men, looking for the crack through which to move his troops. to force the collapse of the Russian front.
“Face-to-face combat by large formations is, from a strategic and operational point of view, a thing of the past,” Gerasimov said in one of his most famous speeches, in 2014, shortly before the start of the war in Donbas. Many of his theses have been applied to the heart by Russia in the Ukraine, but also by the defending army.
Where Zaluzhny’s military preparations fell short was in the south. Russia invaded Kherson province in a matter of days, cutting off access to much of the Black Sea coast and pushing into Ukraine beyond the Dnieper River. This fall, the Ukrainian counter-offensive in the south has steadily advanced to force a complete Russian withdrawal to the eastern bank of the river. In command of the operations in the south is Kovalchuk, a hero of the war in the Donbas region —as are Zaluzhni and Sirski—: he took part in the main battles of 2014, such as the one for the liberation of Sloviansk, or in that of the Lugansk airport, where Ukrainian forces withstood a month-and-a-half siege and he continued to command the 80th Airborne Brigade, despite suffering several injuries. Kovalchuk was received last Saturday as a hero in the liberated city of Kherson.
Ukraine has few contemporary unitary references. The poet Taras Shevchenko is a national symbol of the 19th century; In the 20th century, Stepan Bandera stands out with his Ukrainian Insurgent Army, a controversial figure for his extreme right-wing ideology and the crimes they committed during World War II. The generals at the forefront of the defense today are called to be founding heroes of the new Ukraine. A seminar organized in October by the Marshall Center for European Security Studies also added General Kirilo Budanov, only 36 years old, to this list. Budanov, commander of Defense intelligence services, has ordered sabotage operations in the Russian rear “that have far exceeded expectations,” according to the Marshall Center.
Each intervention by Budanov before the media has an impact comparable to that of Zaluzhni. These generals make little public statement, but when they do, their influence exceeds that of any politician. “Ukrainians think that they are lucky with this military leadership, the trust in them is enormous,” concludes Savchuk. Zaluzhni reacted in September to the mobilization of 300,000 new recruits decreed by Putin with words that caused furor in the media and on social networks. Reflections that, if Zelenski had pronounced them, would not have had the same effect: “We have defeated the professional Russian army, now it is time to do the same with the amateur”.
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